How Mother’s Day became its founder’s worst nightmare
Here’s why we honor our moms on the second Sunday in May—and how the holiday turned into a retail juggernaut.
PHOTOGRAPH VIA LAMBERT/GETTY
Mother’s Day is one of the year’s biggest greeting card occasions, but it definitely didn’t start out as a Hallmark holiday.
The Mother’s Day we celebrate on the second Sunday in May exists largely due to the incessant efforts—some might say maniacal single-mindedness—of a woman named Anna Jarvis. But Jarvis wasn’t the first American to promote the idea.
Early attempts to get the holiday going focused on bigger social issues, such as promoting peace and improving schools. But the version of the day that finally did catch on became its founder’s worst nightmare.
Early Mother’s Day celebrations
Mother’s Day was initially launched by antiwar activists in 1872. Julia Ward Howe, better remembered for writing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” advocated a Mothers’ Peace Day on which pacifist women would gather in churches, social halls, and homes to listen to sermons or essays, sing, and pray for peace.
American cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago held annual Mother’s Day services, centered on pacifism, every June 2 until about 1913. But these faded away, as did the mothers’ pleas for peace when the world entered World War I.
Another early Mother’s Day effort was led by teacher and principal Mary Towles Sasseen, of Henderson, Kentucky. Her idea, launched in 1887, focused on schools: Sasseen wrote a guide, Mother’s Day Celebrations, with the hope that school systems around the country would observe Mother’s Day receptions to strengthen ties between students, parents, and teachers. But by the time she died in 1924, Sasseen’s Mother’s Day never made it far beyond Kentucky.
Who really founded Mother’s Day?
In February 1904, Frank Hering, a University of Notre Dame faculty member, football coach, and national president of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, delivered a speech entitled “Our Mothers and Their Importance in Our Lives.” It was the first public call to set aside a national day to honor mothers.
Although that organization still bills Hering and itself as the “true founders of Mother’s Day,” his role in proposing the holiday was soon eclipsed by the tireless efforts of Jarvis to publicize and promote the holiday—and herself as the founder.
Jarvis’s labors, which made Mother’s Day a reality, began with a wish to honor her own mother—who had attended Julia Ward Howe’s gatherings and prayed, quite literally, for such a day to exist. In 1908, when Jarvis organized the first official Mother’s Day celebrations in Grafton, West Virginia, and Philadelphia, she chose the second Sunday in May because it honored the anniversary of her mother’s death.
As Jarvis’s campaigning rapidly expanded Mother’s Day observations across the country, she rejected the idea that Hering’s earlier suggestion had anything to do with it. An undated 1920s statement entitled “Kidnapping Mother’s Day: Will You Be an Accomplice?” explained her attitude towards Hering: “Do me the justice of refraining from furthering the selfish interests of this claimant, who is making a desperate effort to snatch from me the rightful title of originator and founder of Mother’s Day, established by me after decades of untold labor, time, and expense.”
Jarvis, who never had children, acted partly out of ego, says Katharine Antolini, an historian at West Virginia Wesleyan College and author ofMemorializing Motherhood: Anna Jarvis and the Struggle for Control of Mother’s Day. “Everything she signed was Anna Jarvis, Founder of Mother’s Day. It was who she was.”
How Mother’s Day became a national holiday
Jarvis had a point; she’s clearly the primary person responsible for launching the holiday as a national celebration. Founding Mother’s Day, and aggressively protecting her ownership of the holiday, became her life’s work. In her mission to win the holiday national recognition, Jarvis petitioned the press, politicians, churches, organizations, and individuals of influence including, notably, the wealthy Philadelphia department store magnate John Wanamaker.
Wanamaker embraced Jarvis’s idea, and promoted a May 10, 1908, gathering at his department store, which Jarvis herself addressed. The Philadelphia event drew a reported 15,000 people and each one received a free carnation—at least while they lasted. Mother’s Day was off and running.
Under relentless lobbying from Jarvis, state after state began to observe Mother’s Day and, in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson finally signed a bill designating the second Sunday in May as a legal holiday, Mother’s Day. It was dedicated “to the best mother in the world, your mother.”
The idea of honoring mothers was appealing. General John “Black Jack” Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, highlighted the value of the holiday in a general order he issued on May 8, 1918, asking officers and soldiers to write letters home on Mother’s Day. He wrote, “This is a little thing for each one to do, but these letters will carry back our courage and affection to the patriotic women whose love and prayers inspire us and cheer us on to victory.”
In 1934 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt got into the act; the avid stamp collector sketched a design for a Commemorative Mother’s Day Stamp based on the famous “Whistler’s Mother” portrait. Unfortunately for FDR Anna Jarvis didn’t approve. She found the design ugly and made clear her intention that the words “Mother’s Day” not adorn the stamp—they never did.
Mother’s Day and commercialization
Business owners like John Wanamaker and Philadelphia’s florists likely saw Mother’s Day’s commercial potential from that very first Sunday in 1908.
But Jarvis had many strong opinions about how the holiday should, and should not, be celebrated. Foremost among them was her hatred of profiteering, even by charitable institutions. Just a few years after that first Philadelphia Mother’s Day, one story goes, Jarvis ordered a “Mother’s Day Salad” at Wanamaker’s Tea Room—and dumped it on the floor.
Jarvis meant the holiday to be one of quiet reflection and personal relations between mothers and children. “To have Mother’s Day the burdensome, wasteful, expensive gift day that Christmas and other special days have become, is not our pleasure,” she wrote in the 1920s. “If the American people are not willing to protect Mother’s Day from the hordes of money schemers that would overwhelm it with their schemes, then we shall cease having a Mother’s Day—and we know how.”
If Jarvis really did have some plan to stop people from profiting off of Mother’s Day, that plan amounted to exactly nothing. In 1948 Jarvis died in a Pennsylvania sanitarium, aged 84, penniless after spending her fortune fighting to maintain control over Mother’s Day.
Today, Mother’s Day isn’t just commercialized, it’s a retail juggernaut. In fact, only Back-to-School and winter holidays inspire Americans to spend more money per person than Mother’s Day, according to the National Retail Federation. The haul is over 30 billion dollars in all.
Hallmark profits handsomely from that spending; it’s the third biggest card-giving day of the year. And, to the delight of florists, about three out of four people faithfully send mom flowers. More than half of all celebrators also plan special outings for their mothers, gifting tickets to concerts and sporting events—or a day at the spa.
And Mother’s Day is also the busiest day of the year for restaurants, according to annual research surveys from the National Restaurant Association. More than one in four people go out for a meal with mom each year, and many more at least order takeout so that no one has to spend the special day in the kitchen.
If the holiday has become a runaway moneymaker Jarvis would have loathed, at least gathering around a table for those Mother’s Day meals offers children a chance to personally honor their moms in the way she always intended.